Review of Annie Weisman’s Physical
Physical (2021). Season 1, 10 episodes. Created by Annie Weisman. Starring Rose Byrne, Rory Scovel, Dierdre Friel, Paul Sparks, Della Saba, Lou Taylor Pucci.
Physical gives me anxiety. First of all, there are not enough trigger warnings in the world: addiction, eating disorders, emotional abuse, child endangerment, drug use, language, financial struggles. Not necessarily in this order, not necessarily separate from each other. Secondly, while the show’s first season leaves quite an impression after the final episode’s end credits roll, I have really no idea what it is supposed to be about in that I cannot tell where its storylines are coming together. At its simplest, Physical is about Sheila Rubin (Rose Byrne), who, in a flashforward in the show’s very first scene, is an aerobics teacher famous enough to appear on national TV in 1986. Turning back to San Diego in 1981, the series appears to make sure that throughout its run we will witness how Sheila—a stay-at-home-mother to a daughter, wife to a professor husband who doesn’t exactly tend to her needs, and obsessed with her looks—made it to the public stage as a glamorous celebrity. With this initial promise of a story of empowerment, the show proves to be more of an amalgamation of themes and tropes rather than a neatly bound narrative by the end of the first season. Thus, feeling ambivalent towards or even confused by some of the show’s narrative choices might be a logical consequence. One cannot be blamed for thinking the show’s overall approach might be more challenging than it is engaging. But by its last episode, it cannot be denied that Physical makes use of a space that, surprisingly, isn’t fully occupied in the vast land of streaming content. And while there is some unfulfilled potential, there is one specific aspect of the show so boldly presented that the show’s shortcomings, while not fully pushed aside, are not its most memorable features.
As episode after episode plays out, the audience is left with a confusing mix of several plot threads; the dissonance of themes also plays out in the show’s various production and costume designs. It is set in surroundings marked by seventies-interior-design-chic color palettes—orange, mustard and brown dominate. The busy appearance of shopping malls resemble the hustle and bustle of a family adventure park, and candy-colored aerobics outfits in pastel shades catch the eye. Sets appear drab and exciting interchangeably. Among the show’s main plot points is the story revolving around Danny (Rory Scovel), Sheila’s husband, running for the California State Assembly. This premise offers itself as an examination of Reagan politics, with every person involved in Danny’s campaign hating but at the same time very much welcoming them into their lives, with their desire for wealth, comfort, and middle-class bourgeoisie paired with jibes at the very hippie movement they once were part of. These people’s personal failures to live the ideals of the counterculture beyond clichés of excessive drug use, sexual experimentation, and slacking around are exemplary of how conservatism came to replace free love in the US by the early 80s. Then there is a subplot surrounding mall business mogul John Breem, part of a deeply religious family where emotion and honesty are suffocated by a strict belief in God. Dark family secrets and daddy issues abound. Somehow he plays a role in the Rubins’ lives and politics. What already sounds like multiple shows also plays like them.
Sometimes this confusing mixture of characters, themes, settings, and storylines is presented as a farce, sometimes it heads into commercial broadcast television territory, sometimes it is hard to tell where the show’s focus is. It is neither a true satirical exploration of eighties’ politics nor of how the shift from hippie culture and the disco era towards conservatism was a battleground for working women and housewives alike. Nor is it a dark comedy on how the roles of men and women in the post-feminist eighties were not so much different than the ones they inhabited in the fifties when it came to life behind closed doors. However, there is enough underdeveloped material for all of these potential explorations.
But wait, in terms of plot, there’s more. Here the show enters new territory in a bold and memorable way no other streaming content can claim.
Part of the show’s mix of various plot threads is also, or rather mainly, Sheila’s personal story, which starts with her learning that the dance studio she frequently visits is closed. By happenstance, in her quest for a similar physical outlet, she finds an alternative in aerobics. It is this part of the series that is truly deserving of our attention: Sheila is beautiful, thin, has a gorgeous perm, and while a former leftist rebel who is said to have married a Jewish man to anger her WASPy parents, she seems to live comfortably between getting her child to school, keeping the family’s finances in check, and tending to their life at home. Sheila also has body dysmorphia. She stares at the wrinkles on her face obsessively, judging every person she meets by the volume of their body fat and feeling threatened by every person who is obviously younger than she is. She claims to live healthily but doesn’t eat when in company. Instead, she daily gets the same burger, books a hotel room, strips naked, sits on the bed to indulge in her fast food, and promptly throws it up. Wash, rinse, repeat. No one knows about this well-practiced daily routine. It is an obsession, and as many of our obsessions, it is also a source of shame for Sheila. It goes against the perfectionist she likes to be seen as, and it also exhausts the family’s savings.
While we do not know much about how Sheila developed her eating disorder, the first season gives us glimpses of how her life came to be as it is in 1981. Sheila rebelled against her parents during her hippie days, married Danny, and was introduced to purging by a fellow female student as a trend du jour, but an overall picture is never drawn. This might be emblematic of how the show under-explores some of the themes it touches upon. It also reveals how larger context is not what the series focuses on regarding how Sheila got to her present situation. Physical focuses on the here and now. More specifically, it focuses on what Sheila thinks in the moment as the events of her daily life unfold. We can hear Sheila’s inner thoughts—and they are not pretty. She mentally insults everyone who doesn’t live up to her standards (of beauty, age, health, etc.) by calling them a variation of “pig,” “fat,” or “bitch.” And by everyone I literally mean everyone. Sheila is not exempt from the pressures of her own standards. The worst words are directed at herself and push her to be fitter, thinner, and younger. Sheila is aware that her relation to food is controlled by her disorder. However, she is not interested in stopping her daily binges for the sake of her mental and physical health but because she’s aware that food has more power over her, rather than the other way around. And Sheila likes to retain power and self-control, as underlined by her other obsession: fitness. Thanks to Byrne’s interpretation of the character, it is easy to follow how Sheila is in a state of push and pull with herself, a perfect outer appearance that belies a secret inner life marked by shame and anger. While mentally spewing words of (self-)hate, Sheila’s facial expressions do not correspond to these thoughts when in the presence of others. Byrne conveys these contradictions by the twitch of an eye here, a forced smile there, and some fake laughter thrown in. The acting is often so subtle that it only underlines how insistent Sheila is on keeping up the facade, but it’s noticeable enough for the audience to make sense of the character’s struggle.
Listening to Sheila put herself down when her appearance is in direct contrast to what she perceives it to be, and when her actions are most often the opposite of what her thoughts tell her to do, is a struggle for the audience too and makes Sheila’s discomfort feel real. She calls herself a “pig” when she looks like, well, Rose Byrne. She hates on Greta (Dierdre Friel), a fellow mother from their children’s school, for her looks and then jumps in to emotionally support her as a friend does the next second. This constant state of contradiction and delusion is cruel and hard to stomach, but these narrative choices are not interested in sugarcoating unpleasant truths. As cruel and unsettling as these insults are, they are a close mirror of the self-hate a woman suffering from an eating disorder can experience. Sheila has internalized the patriarchy’s understanding of beauty and fitness. Bodies are commercialized and aging is the worst of all crimes. Her struggles are heartbreaking but also resonate with those of countless women and men who are similarly afflicted. In Sheila’s case, it is all driven to the extreme. Unable to control anything or anyone around her, she relies on her body as a site for control. The show’s depiction of this state of push and pull with oneself is quite realistic. Without being too graphic or too romanticized, it provides a reliable representation of eating disorders, a rarity on screen.
So, after the first season, we don’t know yet whether Physical will go for the narrative that aerobics is an empowering way for Sheila to get out of her misery, or whether it will explore Sheila’s relation with aerobics as it truly is at this point: substituting one addiction for another. Similarly, it will be interesting to see whether its discussion of eighties gender politics will be more deeply developed, as Reagan’s conservatism has already arrived in the Rubins’ house, whether they believe or not. At this point, the show’s representation of the loser husband trope is a bit too simple, even tedious at times, and leads us to contemplate whether the husband character who cannot fulfill his duties as father, lover, man-of-the-house and is basically an utter failure at every aspect of life might have run its course if there isn’t any novel context to it (may I direct you to Valerie Armstrong’s Kevin Can F* Himself here). This is also why Physical is hard to get: there are many themes and tropes touched upon throughout the first season that raise the viewers’ interest but have a fleeting presence. The context of post-feminism leading women towards business success, how the tedious realities of the conservative Reagan era left heteronormative roles at home intact, how religious fundamentalism gained traction and culminated in the Satanic Panic or how fitness culture was on the cusp of another boom (for reference, Jane Fonda’s Workout, the world’s best-selling VHS for six years, was released in 1982) are severely underexplored themes—especially the roles women’s bodies play in all of this. They hopefully will be discussed more clearly in the future to better convey the uniqueness of the show.
In spite of its lack of focus, the show excels at getting one vital idea across: the realization that the voice in your head telling you that you are “a fat bitch” is not just a private matter, but a political issue about how people are caught in cycles of the commodification of the body—to such an extent that they foster mental illness. The show’s examinations of body issues, eating disorders, and exercise addiction feel real and visceral. The show touches on the deeply personal by uttering and centering Sheila’s private thoughts. While not much is contextualized within the show, its representation of an eating disorder serves as a platform that allows us to move its discussion of self-hate, self-harm, and self-torment into reality. It reads as a critique of body, consumer, and fitness culture that is inherent to the American way of life, one in which your body is your main asset, for some people even the only one.
In the end, Physical is a show about hate and shame and power. It reflects on these themes with a crass yet perceptive look. If your stomach can handle the kind of bluntness that comes with it, I propose you buckle up for this definitely bumpy ride. Its discussion of mental illness, unrealistic beauty standards, fitness obsession, and food addiction is challenging but intensively relevant. With a concept that is bold and has, despite the overabundance of streaming shows, a unique approach, Physical is able to take up its space.